February 6, 2013
As the reporter covering public education, I’ve written plenty of stories about what educators in The Dalles are trying to do to raise test scores and graduation rates. Here are a few suggestions of simple improvements from someone who was in high school not very long ago:
1) Give more feedback. As an aspiring journalist who wanted to improve my writing before entering college, I was often frustrated by the fact that most of the essays I got back merely had an A slapped on the top with no feedback other than the occasional correction of a typo or a “Good job!” After a while I figured it must mean my writing was already more or less perfect, so it was a real shock when I got back my first Advanced Placement essay with a low score. I was sure there must be a mistake — until the teacher went through and pointed out my weak thesis statement, run-on sentences and passive voice. By the end of the year my writing was much stronger thanks to regular constructive criticism. During my time in school I also heard more than one friend say something like “No matter what I do I always get a B minus on my paper, and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong!” They kept making the same mistakes over and over again while their frustrated teacher kept giving them the same grade, wondering when they were going to learn.
2) Make sure they know the basics.
When my younger brother wrote his first essay for an Advanced Placement class, he asked me to look over it and tell him if I thought it was an AP-quality paper. What I saw was a fairly solid analysis rife with obvious punctuation and grammar errors. After using his paper to teach him the proper use of a semi-colon, how to tell if a sentence is really a sentence fragment, how to know if a word should be capitalized and the difference between who and whom, he told me that I had taught him more about grammar in half an hour than he had learned all year in most of his English classes. As someone who struggled in my freshman math class because I understood the more complex concepts but had never really gotten a good grasp on computing fractions and decimals, I know that a good crash course on the basics in the first week of class could make a big difference to how the rest of the semester will go.
3) Hold kids accountable. The idea behind credit for proficiency (meaning students earn credit by proving they know the material instead of earning points for busywork, participation and attendance) is a good one. Unfortunately it has translated into “you don’t have to do homework if you don’t want to” for students and “I can’t mark you down for turning in projects and papers late” for teachers. No student will do a math worksheet after school if they won’t get credit for it, but it’s pretty hard to pass a math test if you haven’t practiced doing the equations. And few students will do projects and papers at the beginning of the semester if they can put it off, but it’s pretty hard to do a semester’s worth of quality work in a week. Plus, students have learned that when they don’t meet the deadlines it doesn’t matter because the teachers and administrators will always end up moving the deadline out several times when not enough students meet it. Students should have to prove their proficiency in meeting deadlines, showing up on time, not procrastinating and turning in the work assigned to them—far more useful skills in the workforce than knowing the difference between sine and cosine.
4) Utilize peer tutoring more often. Instead of letting the student who is already done with their work sit and text, ask them to help a group of students who aren’t done yet. Instead of letting seniors who have already taken all of the classes offered at a certain time of day have a free period, assign them as a helper in the tutor room. Give seniors community service hours for giving one-on-one help to freshmen during Teacher Access Time. As a peer tutor during a short-lived program, concepts that I didn't have a good grasp on yet or had been starting to forget were more deeply embedded in my mind after helping someone with their homework.
Look for part 2 for the other four suggestions.